Ronnie Stephenson






Photo: Drummer World

Kenny Mathieson in The Scotsman  

Ronnie Stephenson was born on the 26th January 1937 in Sunderland, County Durham. His elder brother Billy played piano, and brother Bob also became a pianist, but Ronnie was focussed on playing drums, and, already as a teenager, played in Billy's band.

He quickly became professional and worked for a while with Ray Chester's Sextet in Sunderland and later with Pat Rose, before moving down to Birmingham for a job with Cliff Deeley.

He toured for almost a year with the singer Lita Roza before his army call-up in 1955. There Ron served his two years National Service in the Royal Signals Band. Upon demobilization he worked for a short time in Aberdeen with Les Thorpe before joining Don Smith's band in Luton. When Don took his band for a residency in Newcastle upon Tyne Ronnie went with him.

Ron joined the John Dankworth band in 1960, following in the footsteps of Kenny Clare, with whom he later made the sensational recordings on Drum Spectacular in 1966. After that Dankworth band folded in 1963 he went on to work with Stan Tracey's Trio. He eventually joined Jack Parnell's television orchestra, meanwhile continuing to freelance with Ronnie Scott, accompanying many international musicians in Ronnie's club, and gigs with Tubby Hayes.

He toured with singer Tom Jones in Germany, later joining the Kurt Edelhagen band in Cologne, then Paul Kuhn at Radio Free Berlin. He worked with the clarinet player Rolf Kuhn in Hamburg and played dates with the Kenny Clarke/Francy Boland band. When the Berlin radio band was dissolved he played for a while in the Theater de Westens and taught drums at the University of Berlin. He also worked many times with tenor saxophonist Heinz von Hermann, together with trumpeter Rolf Ericson and the Austrian bass player Hans Rettenbacher.

Ron retired, with his wife Jean, to Dundee in the 1990s. He died there on the 8th of August, 2002, aged 65.

Ron Simmonds: I worked with Ronnie in the Dankworth band in 1961 when John's lineup was somewhat smaller than his earlier big band with the Dankworth Seven. The band was very good. With me in the trumpet section were Leon Calvert, Kenny Wheeler and Gus Gailbraith. Trombones were Tony Russell and Ed Harvey, with Ron Snyder on tuba. This gave the brass an extraordinarily rich sound. Roy East led Art Ellefson, Vic Ash and Ronnie Ross in the saxes. John joined the section on alto from time to time, making five in all. The big drive of the band came from the all-star rhythm section of Alan Branscombe, piano; Kenny Napper, bass and Ronnie on drums. That was a hot band!

Around 1966, just after Ronnie had made the astounding Drum Spectacular with Kenny Clare he contacted me in Berlin. He wanted me to transcribe the drum solos from the record in order to include them as examples in book form. I was nonplussed, to say the least. How does oneDrum Spectacular transcribe a drum solo? It's hard enough writing a normal drum part into an arrangement! I could see myself transcribing the stuff for the rest of my life. I had to turn the job down, but I understand that someone eventually did do it. Whether anyone could play from the written examples I can't imagine, but they sure must have been interesting to look at, and follow along with the record — for a drummer, anyway.

While he was working with Kurt Edelhagen in Cologne Ronnie booked me for a Shirley Bassey tour, and I had to commute each day from Berlin to all the various German towns to do the gig. (The tour is described elsewhere in Jazz Professional.) Then Ronnie joined the Radio Free Berlin Big Band. This was at the time when Carmel Jones, Milo Pavlovic, Heinz von Hermann, Torolf Molgaard and Eugen Cicero were on the band. Later on Rolf Ericson and Walter Norris joined, with various guest appearances by Al Porcino and Bobby Burgess. Another hot band!

A priceless gem, treasured by very many people, including the musicians of the BBC Big Band, who shared the concert with us, is the memory of a friendship visit we once made with that Berlin band to perform at the Festival Hall in London. We were to play an arrangement of American Patrol somewhere in the middle of the concert, which was being televised. Ronnie had an eight-bar drum solo to start the number off.

When Paul Kuhn nodded to him Ronnie went into his solo at such a terrific tempo, about double the normal one, that we just sat staring at him in amazement. It was a live transmission, and even if we'd wanted to stop him there was no way to do it because he was bent right over the drums with his head down, working away like mad at all the gear. The saxes came in somehow and so did the brass later on, but most of us couldn't play for laughing. I could see Jimmy Deuchar, who had come down specially from Dundee to visit the band, falling about helplessly in the wings, red-faced and holding his sides.

Everything — solos, ensembles, brass fanfares — all went by at the speed of light. Ron was in his element, playing like a man possessed. After the final tremendous crash he lowered his sticks to thunderous applause, and sat there with a look of extreme satisfaction on his face. Then he noticed that we were all grinning at him.

He looked back at us, dead-pan, and raised his eyebrows in query.

“What?” he said.

Later on Ronnie did some gigs with Peter Herbolzheimer's Rhythm Combination & Brass, particularly the Berghausen Jazz Festival and the Domicile in Munich. Wherever he played, Ron did a magnificent job, driving the band, phrasing with the brass, breathtaking solos — you had to play all out, all the time, just to keep up to the standard he was setting. It was always an exhilarating experience, playing with Ronnie in any band, and something I am never likely to forget. Ron Simmonds

I am indebted to Bernhard Castiglioni for his permission to use photographs from his website Drummer World where there are more stunning action photos of Ronnie.

I am also greatly indebted to Greg McCaffrey, Ron and Jean's good friend in Dundee, for keeping me up to date during Ronnie's long and tragic illness.

Photos of Ronnie Copyright © Bernhard Castiglioni